Biplab Swain. Photo: Biraj Swain.
- A pandemic death is not the failure of an individual family; it is the failure of the state and of society. This is especially true of delta wave deaths in India.
- Those who have succumbed to the virus have not only left an empty chair or an inactive number in our directories; the fallen were humans who were at the center of our universes.
- Here, Biraj Swain remembers his brother Biraj, who fell in the wave of the delta variant on May 4, 2021, 22 days after his 48th birthday.
According to a study published in the Lancet Child and adolescent health newspaper, more than 1.9 million children were orphaned (lost their caregivers) from March 2020 to October 2021 in India. One of them is Binayak, our child, who was raised by my brother.
My brother, Biplab Swain, would have turned 49 on April 12 of this year. He fell into the wave of the delta variant on May 4, 2021, 22 days after his 48th birthday. But the Lancet the study doesn’t count people like me and my sister-in-law (his wife), who were also orphans.
He was my only brother, my best friend, my relative (both of our parents are deceased), my confidant and my pillar of support in a patriarchal world where divorced/single women are “lesser” citizens. He was the center of our universe and the world is a much lesser place without him.
But why should anyone care what I have to say about my brother? He was not a celebrity; he did not live an extraordinary life. On the contrary, he believed in living an ordinary life and that the extraordinary would take care of itself. But people should care because there are too many brothers, sisters, men, women, humans who have fallen under the virus.
And a pandemic death is not the failure of an individual family; it is the failure of the state and of society. This is especially true of delta wave deaths in India. Vidya Krishnan, in Caravan, dove deep into the decisions that led to so many funeral pyres.
Those who succumbed to the virus not only left an empty chair at the table or an inactive number in our directories; the fallen were humans who were at the center of our universes. A paper in Nature puts the number of such humans at 22 million and The Economist estimates them at 24.3 million, four times the official global data.
Biplab was a computer systems expert who had worked in Europe and the United States but returned to India, Odisha specifically, to be with his family. He was a family man; a son, husband, father, brother, loving human; an entrepreneur, a farmer, an engineer; an active citizen and a general genius.
His main characteristic was his kindness. We were born into a trade union home. As Amazon employees unionize today and South Asian governments and major industrialists engage in “union busting,” my brother, a software and systems specialist, had more worker solidarity. in the blood of many professional trade unionists.
He supported the Association of Technicians and Workers of Odisha Motion Pictures during their wage struggle; he drove down the national highway to distribute food and drink when millions of migrant workers were forced to walk home after the sudden announcement of the 2020 lockdown; it charged the phones of thousands of foreigners for several weeks from its solar panels when the coast of Odisha blacked out in 2019, following Cyclone Fani.
On May 2, 2021, at the height of the delta wave, he checked into a leading private hospital with his wife, never to return home; never continuing his acts of kindness on a daily basis.
His mantra was justice and solidarity and his favorite poem was that of Pastor Martin Neimoller, They first came… He lived every moment of this poem and it is fitting that we commemorate his first anniversary of death in an interfaith ceremony.
Biplab would also have been “excessive death”; an uncounted COVID death, like the millions who have been denied the very dignity of a statistic by the state and its instruments. Despite a positive COVID report from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), upon his death, the Municipality of Cuttack issued a normal death certificate. In November 2021, only after the Supreme Court’s order on writs 539/2021 and 554/2021, did we obtain his COVID death certificate; a good six months after his death.
But our battles did not end there; rather, they were just getting started. A year after lighting his funeral pyre, standing socially distanced in the crematorium in layers of personal protective equipment (PPE); a year that the country burned like that of Dante Hellour battles are far from over.
As a female-headed household with two sisters-in-law and one minor child and no adult males, we are suing our bank to recognize one of us as the ‘Karta‘ (manager) of our Hindu-Undivided-Family (HUF) account. This has increased our tax burden exponentially. Professor Faizan Mustafa, in his legal awareness web series, talks more about Hindu succession law and gender bureaucracy.
COVID has also revealed the broken state of insurance-funded healthcare in India, resting on crumbling healthcare infrastructure and lacking in adequate human resources. From 2 million missing nurses to 600,000 missing doctors to an unregulated healthcare sector bent on profiting from the pandemic, we’ve been through it all.
We had to take our private insurer to a mediator to claim our due settlements, only to discover the plethora of injunctions pending against health insurance companies in the many high courts across the country, recorded during the delta wave. daily hindi Daïnik Bhaskar takes a deep dive into the matter.
Accessing COVID benefits for widows and orphans has also been onerous and humiliating in equal measures. COVID Orphans and Widows Assistance, – reluctantly announced by state governments after the Supreme Court order – its implementation and delivery merits further judicial and journalistic scrutiny.
Regular things like vehicle ownership transfer, investments, nominee changes and the like have been akin to walking through the Kafkaesque maze. And in the midst of it all, we argue against the Cuttack District government’s relentless attempts to take over our parent lands.
Feminist economists and sociologists have written extensively on maternity pain. I never suffered the maternity penalty because my brother was our mother. With her passing, as motherhood looms on the horizon, I have yet to pay the penalty, because of my employing organization, my colleagues and many acts of humanity committed by strangers and officials randomly. However, all of this is despite of the state rather than because of it.
As we persevere through all these battles and try to deal with the guilt and grief of survivors, and falter in our attempts to heal, I wonder what the mainstream media has been reporting over the past year. These are not only our stories; these are the stories of most survivors. But where is the mainstream reporting on this? Why is it difficult to cover these stories on a few independent media platforms? What happened to the fact that journalism is about “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”?
There is a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”. We are not fans of interesting moments. We want the banal and the ordinary; a world where social protection, science and solidarity reign. And every time we, the odd family of two sisters-in-law and a child, are complimented for being strong and resilient, I want to shout at the top of my lungs, “What civilized society demands this level of resilience from victims ?
Biraj Swain works at the intersection of global development and media monitoring in Asia and East Africa.